Morris from America is this summer’s Dope. Thoroughly winsome and immeasurably feel-good, it follows the life of a father and son adjusting to life in Heidelberg, Germany. This is precisely what is so incredibly refreshing about Morris from America — it is a coming-of-age movie about hip hop, set in Germany. A pretty novel premise, indeed.
13-year-old Morris (Markees Christmas) follows his father, Curtis (Craig Robinson), when he moves to a strange land so he can work as a soccer coach. Morris doesn’t speak German particularly well, but he speaks the universal lingua franca of hip hop. This, we find, is all he needs to know. Hip hop is what allows Morris to relate to his dad and defy his own feelings of not fitting in.
Chad Hartigan directs this movie with an excellent sense of pacing–bright colors abound, propelled by the sounds of EDM with laughs sprinkled in effortlessly. There is no pandering or didacticism. Morris’ character develops from the stereotypical perma-scowling, thinking-all-adults-are-lame teenager to a much more nuanced character. In fact, it is the exchanges between him and his father that really carry the film. Craig Robinson is comedic gold in just about every line he delivers; their banter about who is the best hip hop artist and why is incredibly amusing. Curtis is truly relatable as a single dad who is trying to build a life for his family in an unfamiliar place but is just as out of place as his son. As he puts it, “we are the only two brothers in Heidelberg.”
Speaking of which, Morris from America wryly and subtly pokes fun at the stereotypes still affecting the characters, yet the issues Morris faces are not racism per se but perhaps more general cultural misunderstandings. For example, the kids at the youth center assume Morris must be good at basketball because he is African-American. When one of the counselors asks Morris whether a joint he found in the woods is his, Morris exasperatedly responds, “Why don’t you ask the other kids!?” The counselor’s response, comically enough, is almost, “yes, why didn’t I think of that?” It could have been a tense moment but threat and negativity is mercifully absent in this feel-good film.
Then there is “the girl” (as Morris’ Dad says, “there always is a girl”). 15-year-old Katrin (Lina Keller) is Morris’ ticket out of social exclusion. She is cool, beautiful and has a famous DJ boyfriend. She is always inviting Morris to parties (which hilariously, Morris first hears as “bodies”). Sure, she sometimes makes fun of him too, but their very platonic relationship is the vehicle that allows him to finally take the spotlight, quite literally, and deliver a jaw-dropping freestyle.
Morris from America is effortlessly ebullient–which is incredibly amusing when one considers how much time Morris initially spends sulking. Without going for cheap laughs, it will leave the audience beaming nevertheless.